There’s just no escaping The Donald – even when he is not there, he is there
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
The Fox News Republican debate felt like an intellectual exercise. Question: What would happen if Donald Trump didn't take part? Answer: He would still win.
The night wasn't all about Trump. Ted Cruz tried, and mostly succeeded, in projecting frontrunner confidence.
He traded barbs with Marco Rubio over who was toughest on immigration.
Rubio called Cruz a "liar" and he also cracked a good funny about Hillary Clinton's various alleged crimes: if she wins, "her first act will be to pardon herself".
Rand Paul pledged to stand up for civil liberties; John Kasich said he would reach out to moderates.
Chris Christie, tiresomely furious about every damn thing under the sun, wanted to "stop the Washington bull". How?
The only truly revealing performance was that of Jeb Bush. Without Trump on the stage, Bush felt more comfortable attacking Trump - who he called "my little teddy bear". If we had seen this Bush earlier, he might be doing better.
The problem is that the Republican race has largely become about one man - where is Trump tonight? What does Trump think? What would the other candidates do about Trump?
Imagine the frustration of highly qualified men (and they were all men) who have dedicated a year of their lives to running for president - only to discover that the media wants to talk about someone else.
Whether it was Cruz, pictured, joking about him ("I may have to leave the stage," he said when the questions got too mean), candidates discussing his signature issue of immigration or all the high blown talk about leadership and experience - it was obvious what they were doing.
They were attacking a man who was on the other side of town ostensibly raising cash for veterans.
But that event was all about Trump, too.
The billionaire asked his gorgeous wife to stand up so that everyone could admire her Barbie-doll curves.
He joked about Bush being terrified that he'd still turn up to the debate.
And he even invited two other candidates onto the stage who had foolishly agreed to come along to help out with the charitable giving: Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Both had participated earlier in the "undercard" debate for candidates who are just asterisks in the polls.
The five people who tuned in to watch that earlier debate will have noticed that the Fox moderators got booed when they challenged Rick Santorum, a lifelong pro-life activist, on why he didn't attend an anti-abortion march (the answer: transport chaos caused by snow).
The question was misleading and unfair. The audience's reaction was revealing.
Because one thing Trump has helped do is to put Fox News itself on trial.
We assume too often that conservatives love conservative media - that they are as blindly loyal to the Fox brand as they are to the Second Amendment and Nascar.
But Trump has exposed deep fissures in the right-wing media.
Some, like Rush Limbaugh, have spoken admirably about him out of deference to his obvious support.
Others, like the National Review or Glenn Beck, say that he betrays philosophical conservative principles.
By letting us know where they stand, the anti-Trump right has risked alienating its own customer base.
Conservative populists hate the idea of "gate-keepers" saying who is and who isn't "acceptable" when it comes to electing a president - it sounds a little too much like political correctness.
And Fox compounded that impression when Megyn Kelly picked a fight with The Donald at the previous Fox debate.
Trump walking away from Fox has been one of the most significant things about this campaign.
It's shown that a) you can still poll well without the blessing of the corporation and b) the endless choreographing of politics to suit the demands of broadcasters can be challenged.
Conservatives are just as tired of the "politics as soap opera" style of news coverage as liberals are.
Trump has his faults; but by refusing to speak, he landed a small blow for free speech.